In this post I thought I would discuss that beloved tea: yerba mate. Anyone who has visited the southern cone, especially AR, UR, and PA, will notice very quickly that the drinking of mate (AR, UR) and tereré (PA) are important cultural practices. If you find a porteño without his/her termo and mate kit, something’s wrong. In the heat of the day in the Paraguayan summer, especially in the interior, I would wager that at least 80% of the adult population is sipping their tereré in small groups of family and friends.
Mate and tereré are drunk out of a guampa, or gourd, and a bombilla, or a perforated metal straw. Mate is hot water and tereré is cold (iced) water. Tereré is only drunk in Paragauy.
Historicity of Yerba Mate
While there is little evidence, some scholars believe that the plant ilex paraguayenis or yerba, a species of South American holly, was consumed, in some way or another, by native peoples before contact. It is most likely from natives that Spaniards learned to consume the plant. By the 1580s, Spaniards throughout the region consumed the plant in the form of mate. The commodity spread quickly throughout the region and by the 1630s it was by far the most important export item for the Paraguayan province. Merchants from Tucuman, Santa Fe, BA, Santiago, and lower Peru came to Asunción acquire hundreds of arrobas (@). (One @ = 25 pounds). In upper Peru, the wealthy drank their mate from guampa and bombilla made from pure silver, an interesting iteration of the economics of the broader region. By mid-17th century export to Potosí was significant; one Spanish official/traveler recorded that in one year some 50k (1,250,000 pounds or 560 tons) were consumed in the mining town. (This sounds exaggerated, and I plan to do some checking later).
In the civil documentation for the 17th century I have reviewed almost every type of trade transaction involved @’s of yerba. Since coinage was rare in Paraguay, yerba became the common barter item. Until the mid-17th century, Spaniards north of the Tebicuary maintained control over yerba in the market, but the Jesuits began to rival and the stage was set for a continuous battle over yerba harvesters for the next decade or more.
Yerba harvesting was taxing and apparently extremely harmful to the indigenous population. Since the wild yerbales grew in damp—almost swampy—soil, disease was common. Moreover most of the yerbales were in the northern territories and these were subject to frequent attacks by unfriendly natives. The harvesting process was strenuous. Small settlements called ranchos were set up in the forest for the Indian laborers. The yerba shoots would be cut off the trees then carried back to the ranchos where they were held over a fire until the leaves were dry. Next the leaves were put on a grill for further drying then put into large holes lined with leather skins where they were beaten with wooden rods into a grainy powder. The finished product was taken to Asunción (or other clandestine ports) on the backs of mules and sometimes Indians.
The overland route or the camino real started in Asunción and followed the PA River to Corrientes where the Paraná and the Paraguay run together. From there, south to Santa Fe, then either west to Cordova and finally Santiago or south-east to Buenos Aires. From Cordoba the camino real headed north through San Miguel, Salta, and Tucuman to go up to Potosi.
Outsiders have viewed the consumption of yerba mate teas with various lenses. Similar to their reaction to coca, many Jesuits, ecclesiastics, and even Spanish officials claimed yerba was a harmful substance; yerba was at one time “on trial” with the Holy Inquisition! More modern observers have been inclined to see the more beneficial side of mate. One Argentine naturalist in the 1890s concluded that “the workers with mate possessed unusual resistance to heat and insects and were happy and satisfied to work under very poor conditions without thought of rebellion.” Following on the naturalists tail in the 1950s, the botanists R. Howard Porter observed: “In Asuncion, Paraguay, the workers in a mate mill in 1946 were observed to be strong and able to do heavy physical work handling the sacks of mate. For breakfast they eat little and work all day in the mill with no food other than mate taken as a drink.” Paraguayan labor problem?: solved!
When I first came to Paraguay I declined invitations to drink tereré for fear of catching a bug; remember, it’s a social drink that is shared. But that was in the countryside where it seems a different culture of tereré exists: come one come all. I observed that anyone and everyone was invited (and often accepted the invitation) when approaching a group. In Asuncion, I have found a less open tereré culture. Most of my friends explained that they only invite people they know (particularly those without herpes or other contagious diseases) and trust as good friends. Still there are many who share with any fulano or fulana that wants a drag.
I’ve enjoyed the drink, as a healthful alternative to other cold drinks: soda, juice, or just plain water. (Come to think of it I have not seen one Paraguayan carry around a water bottle, they rarely drink pure water). Some yerbas are quite bitter while others (like Kurpi) have a sweeter flavor. I’m not big on mate, probably a function of my hosts’ habbit of only drinking mate early in the morning, before I’m awake. If your a sweet tooth, you can try mate dulce which is drunk with sweetened milk poured in yerba mixed with crushed coconut or just plain yerba but with a little scoop of sugar for each turn.
I think that’s enough on yerba mate for now. The next time your around I invite you to partake, that is after I screen you for infectious diseases and cold sores.